Education in Utah
In common with other nineteenth century Americans, many Utahns desired formal schooling for their children. But desiring education and schools, is not synonymous with actually having education and schools. Social, political, and economic conditions can thwart aspirations and reduce educational commitment to expressions of rhetoric. Even mandates for education that are rooted in religious ideals are frequently modified by inescapable realities.
Utah schools in the nineteenth century reflected the patchwork quilt of aspiration, apathy, rhetoric and actual commitment which characterized much of century’s education at the national level-some communities were pockets of educational excellence and others displayed only minimal commitment. Some parents wanted as much formal schooling as was possible for their children; others were hostile to book learning. There were also communities (such as Draper and the Second Ward in Salt Lake City) stretched themselves economically to support schools. Much depended on local economic circumstances and the personal commitment of local ecclesiastical leadership.
Most elementary schools in the 1850s and 1860s were organized on the basis of Mormon Wards with the church meeting house serving as the school house during the week. These ward schools differed widely in their curriculum offerings and the quality of their teaching. They were in essence quasi-public Mormon schools, controlled by local trustees appointed by Mormon bishops; they reflected Mormon community values, used Mormon scriptures as supplemental texts and supported in part by tuition from patrons and local taxes. As early as 1851 the office of territorial superintendent of schools was created, promoting the centralization of school policy and curriculum at least in theory if not in practice. During the pioneer period up to 1869, in the words of John C. Moffitt, “very little was done in Utah for education beyond the rudiments of learning.”
By the time the transcontinental railroad had made Utah more accessible to the rest of the United States in 1869, some semblance of system appeared as the ward schools evolved into district public schools, although they were still basically Mormon oriented schools supported by local taxes. Eventually these schools became the nucleus of the federally mandated publicly supported territorial district schools which came into existence with the passage of Utah’s first Free Public School Act by the Territorial Legislature in 1890. There was some initial opposition to these compulsory secular schools on the part of the Latter-day Saints, but eventually they came to be accepted as part of Mormon accommodation to mainstream America.
In addition to the development of the district schools, between 1867 and 1900 some one hundred private elementary and secondary schools were established by Congregational, Presbyterian and Methodist mission boards. Their initial aim was to “Christianize” Utah’s Mormon children a well as meet the needs of the growing number of non-Mormons who were settling in Utah. Few of them persisted after Utah adopted a free school system; however, they played a significant role as models for public schools and for the professionalization of teaching. The Episcopal Church established the first private denominational school, St. Mark’s, in 1867. The Catholic Church also maintained St. Mary’s Academy (1875-1926) and St. Mary’s of the Wasatch (1926-1970), Judge Memorial High School (established in 1921) and St. Joseph’s High School in Ogden (established in 1929). Currently there are several hundred home-schools operated by individual parents, and a variety of private schools-religious and entrepreneurial-have been established in the last few years.
Public secondary education did not exist until the last decade of the nineteenth century and did not become a viable part of the system until the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1910, 58 percent of Utah’s 16-to 17-year-olds were enrolled in high school and by 1940 the percentage had risen to 86 percent. In 1991, over 23,715 students graduated from public high school–representing 90.3 percent of the 12th-grade students.
Partly in response to the increasing secularization of the district schools and the perceived threat posed by Protestant mission schools, the Mormon Church in the 1870s and 1880s organized a private secondary school system. However, because of economic exigencies, by 1933 the LDS Church had discontinued its support of private secondary schools in Utah, turning some of them over to the state for a nominal fee. Public secondary schools were made more acceptable to the Mormons because of the organization in about 1912 of a parallel released-time program funded entirely by the LDS Church which allowed Mormon students to integrate religious education with their public school studies through attendance at LDS seminaries built adjacent to high schools. Although most Utah school districts gave students graduation credits for attendance at seminary classes, a 1981 Federal court ruling disallowed such credit as being unconstitutional, while upholding the constitutionality of the released-time program.
Education in the nineteenth-century Utah was shaped in part by the conflicts between Mormons and non-Mormons. During the twentieth century, however, it is just as evident that it has been shaped less by local circumstances than by the national social, economic and political environment and mirrors very closely national educational issues. For example, the demands for a business-like approach to the management of the burgeoning school systems led to demands for more efficiency in the management of tax-money. This in turn led to demands for consolidation and centralization of schools–two movements which typified the early twentieth century and for which Utah was praised nationally. Utah’s response during the Progressive era gained it national attention and its concern for the welfare of children in and out of school was described by one national historian as “social uplift with a vengeance.” In the late 1930s there was a national trend toward increased state funding of education, and once again Utah shared in this movement to improve the economic lot of teachers.
Over the years a variety of legislative measures had been adopted to promote equalization in the distribution of state education funds, resulting in a patchwork quilt approach to the problem of equality of educational opportunity. In 1946-47, under the leadership of the Utah Education Association, efforts by a coalition of educational, civic, and business groups succeeded in passing amendments to the Utah constitution and in consolidating the many funding measures so that the quality of the equalization formulas was improved. The object was to establish a state-wide standard which would provide equal educational opportunity for all students and at the same time spread the financial sacrifice more equitably among the state’s taxpayers. As a result, Utah was put in the forefront of the national movement to provide equal opportunity and tax equity.
From the mid-twentieth century concerns over such national priorities as defense, veteran’s training and equal opportunity led to increased federal involvement in Utah schools. As teachers throughout the nation became more aggressive in the 1960s in their demands for increased compensation, Utah’s teachers captured national headlines with a state wide strike and the National Education Association placed the state under a sanction to keep teachers outside of Utah from breaking the strike. With the return to the traditional curriculum emphasis in the 1980s, Utah adopted a structural approach to its reform focusing on graduation requirements, curriculum control and teacher incentives such as career ladders. During much of the twentieth century the focus in Utah’s public schools has been upon the way schools can help fit students to the economic and social needs of American civilization. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the schools are expected to meet the individual needs of the students. Utah schools have followed these national patterns.
In this respect education in Utah during the twentieth century is not particularly unique. The state is too much a part of the social, economic and political matrix of the times, too integrated into the highly complex technological civilization to bear a unique fingerprint in terms of its educational development.
Public schools in Utah do, however, present the state with some unique problems because (as of 1992) education consumes a larger proportion (48.4 percent) of tax revenues in Utah than in any other state. This is in large measure due to the Mormon emphasis on large families and a consistently high birthrate. And it also means that Utah has the lowest expenditure per student in the nation ($2,993 compared to the national average of $5,261) but the state also ranks fifth in the percentage of personal income expended for education. As the twentieth century comes to a close the greatest challenge facing Utah is how to balance between the demands of its burgeoning population for quality education and resources available. With one of the most highly consolidated school systems in the nation, Utah actually does more with its resources than many other states. It has the highest proportion of its population in public schools (98.2 percent) than any other state, and leads the nation in the percentage of the population over twenty-five years of age with a high school diploma. As a consequence of an emphasis on large families, however, the education system also must bear the burden of having the highest pupil-per-teacher ratio in the nation: in 1992 it was 23.8, as compared with the national average of 15.9. Its teachers rank forty-fourth in the nation in terms of salary levels, but when career ladder awards are included they rank thirty-ninth.
The burden on Utah taxpayers for the support of education is significant; however, but in spite of a vigorous campaign waged to cut taxes in 1988, the electorate defeated tax limitation proposals by a wide margin. Historically, the establishment and perpetuation of schools in Utah has been contingent not only on aspirations and ideals but, on the availability of suitable personnel, facilities, and, most importantly, financial support.
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